Global Discoveries on DVD: Misnomers and Displacements (my 7th column)

From Cinema Scope #20 (Autumn 2004). — J.R.

One of the most flagrant lacks in most jazz films is the spectacle of musicians listening to each another. Back in the early 60s, when I was frequenting a lot of downtown Manhattan jazz clubs, some of my biggest thrills came from visiting spots where many of the best and most attentive listeners were those on the bandstand —- not only the classic John Coltrane Quartet at the now defunct Half Note, where McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and the serene leader were all meditating on one another’s solos in a kind of trance, but Lennie Tristano at the same club taping his own sets with Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz and then playing them back in the wee hours, while he sat alone at the bar. Sitting a few seats away from him one night, I felt I was getting an education in listening by observing this prodigious blind pianist’s highly physical responses, both positive and negative, to his own solos.

No less precious was the opportunity to attend the Jazz Gallery on St. Mark’s Place one weeknight when Miles Davis, Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, J.J. Johnson, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones were all holding forth in alternation with Teddy Wilson’s trio for (I kid you not) the price of a one-dollar admission, at least for students.… Read more »

SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (1960)

This was written in the summer of 2000 for a coffee-table book edited by Geoff Andrew that was published the following year, Film: The Critics’ Choice (New York: Billboard Books). — J.R.

Considering how romantic it is, how sad and funny and charming, it is a sobering fact that François Truffaut’s second feature –- and the first one that qualifies as a quintessential New Wave expression — was a disaster at the boxoffice. Indeed, if this eccentric adaptation of David Goddis’s 1956 crime novel Down There illustrated any general commercial principle, this may be that one subverts overall genre expectations at one’s peril. For Tirez sur le pianiste is a film noir that literally turns white (through such images as piano keys or a snowy hillside) when the plot is at its darkest, and one that sometimes interrupts the viewer’s laughter with a disquieting catch in the throat.

The opening sequence already sends out bewildering crossed signals. A man fleeing in  panic through dark city streets at night collides with a streetlight, then finds himself  talking quite calmly with a sympathetic stranger –- a character who exits the movie immediately thereafter -– about the latter’s love for his wife. Moreover, while the fluid and flexible black-and-white cinematography (by Raoul Coutard) is in the anamorphic process Dyaliscope, the ambience is cramped and cozy in the best low-budget tradition.… Read more »

NIGHTJOHN (1997 program note)

A program note for the 1997 San Francisco International Film Festival. — J.R.

Nightjohn

In this intense drama of courage and humanity in the face of the brutality of slavery, a plantation slave named Nightjohn (Carl Lumblv) defies the law by teaching another slave, a l2-year-old girl named Sammy (Allison Jones), how to read and write. The only other slave on the plantation who even knows the alphabet had a thumb and forefinger chopped off as punishment. Working with a theme akin to that of Ray Bradbury’s novel (and François Truffaut’s film) Fahrenheit 451 – though it’s given a substantially different edge by being set in the past rather than the future — Nightjohn views illiteracy as a central adjunct of slavery. The film isn’t merely a history lesson about people who lived some 165 years ago but a story with immediate relevance. Part of what’s so wonderful about it is its use of fairy-tale feeling to focus on real-life issues, not to evade or obfuscate them. Nightjohn’s ambience is placed at the service of myth — myth that embodies a lucid understanding of both slavery and literacy. Sammy and Nightjohn may sometimes come across as superhuman, but the world they inhabit and seek to change is in no sense  fanciful.… Read more »

The Story Of A Cheat

From the November 1, 1993 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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Widely regarded as Sacha Guitry’s masterpiece (though I’d place it below The Pearls of the Crown), this 1936 tour de force can be regarded as a kind of concerto for the writer-director-performer’s special brand of brittle cleverness. After a credits sequence that introduces us to the film’s cast and crew, Guitry settles into a flashback account of how the title hero learned to benefit from cheating over the course of his life. A notoriously anticinematic cineaste whose first love was theater, Guitry nevertheless had a flair for cinematic high jinks when it came to adapting his plays (or in this case a novel) to film, and most of this movie registers as a rather lively and stylishly inventive silent film, with Guitry’s character serving as offscreen lecturer. Francois Truffaut was sufficiently impressed to dub Guitry a French brother of Lubitsch, though Guitry clearly differs from this master of continental romance in that his own personality invariably overwhelms his characters. In French with subtitles. 85 min. (JR)

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The Bride Wore Black

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1991). Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray of this film has a lot of interesting material about the changes made by Truffaut to Bernard Herrmann’s score.  — J.R.

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Despite the dedication of this 1967 film to Hitchcock and the use of his most distinguished collaborator, composer Bernard Herrmann, Francois Truffaut’s first Cornell Woolrich adaptation — the second was Mississippi Mermaid — is most memorable for lyrical moods and poetic flights of fancy that don’t seem especially Hitchcockian. Jeanne Moreau stalks gracefully through the film, wooing and dispatching a series of men like an avenging angel whose motivating obsession is spelled out only gradually; among her prey are Claude Rich, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michel Bouquet, Michel Lonsdale, and Charles Denner. Basically an exercice de style, and a good one at that. In French with subtitles. 107 min. (JR)

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Strangers in Elvisland [MYSTERY TRAIN]

From the Chicago Reader (February 9, 1990). — J.R.

MYSTERY TRAIN

** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch

With Youki Kudoh, Masatoshi Nagase, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Cinque Lee, Nicoletta Braschi, Elizabeth Bracco, Joe Strummer, and Rick Aviles.

Mastery is a rare commodity in American movies these days, in matters both large and small, so when a poetic master working on a small scale comes into view, it’s reason to sit up and take notice. Jim Jarmusch’s second feature, Stranger Than Paradise, won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 1984 and catapulted him from the position of an obscure New York independent with a European cult following — on the basis of his first feature, Permanent Vacation (1980) — to international stardom.

As the first — and so far only — filmmaker informed by the New York minimalist aesthetic to make a sizable mainstream splash, Jarmusch had a lot riding on his next films, and he has acquitted himself admirably. He hasn’t sold out to Hollywood or diluted his style, and, unlike most of the few other contemporary American independents to make it big, he has managed to maintain rigorous control over every aspect of his work, from script to production to distribution.… Read more »

Painter at Work

From the Chicago Reader (February 17, 1989). I was extremely disappointed in the revised version of this film that was released about sixteen years later, which I also reviewed in the Reader, because I believe it essentially effaced or distorted many of the virtues I found in the original film. (One can find my arguments about this here.) — J.R.

GOLUB

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Jerry Blumenthal and Gordon Quinn.

By and large, painting and cinema have always tended to be uneasy bedfellows. To film a stationary canvas with a stationary camera is to deprive the viewer of both the movement possible in film and the movement possible to the viewer of a painting in a studio or gallery. On the other hand, to find a stationary canvas with a camera in motion is to impose an itinerary on the painting in question, thereby limiting the reading of the individual viewer.

While there are a handful of interesting and respectable art documentaries in the history of film, such as Alain Resnais’ Van Gogh (1948) and Gauguin (1950), and Sergei Paradjanov’s recent Arabesques Around a Pirosmani Theme – all three of which significantly happen to be shorts — the overall failure of film to record a painter’s work without recourse to a gliding Cook’s tour or a mincemeat dissection of the work in question has been far from encouraging.… Read more »

YOU ARE NOT I & ADYNATA (1983)

A program note for the Pacific Film Archive, April 5, 1983, to launch a program I selected entitled “Institutional Qualities and Casual Relations: The Avant-Garde  Film Today”, put together with the help of Edith Kramer. Most of the films in the series were related to both my book Film: The Front Line 1983, published around the same time, which includes separate chapters on both Sara Driver and Leslie Thornton, and the two courses I was teaching concurrently as visiting professor in the University of California Berkeley Film Studies Department. — J.R.

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You Are Not I and Adynata      7:30

Two very different and accomplished films about female identity, Sara Driver’s You Are Not I (1981, 50 min.) and Leslie Thornton’s Adynata (1983, 30 min.) are both dialectically conceived; there the resemblance ends. The first is a very close adaptation of a Paul Bowles story written in the late 1940s, filmed in black and white [cinematography by Jim Jarmusch], about a psychic and territorial war fought between two sisters, one of them a schizophrenic. The second is a non-narrative film about the ideological configurations and semiotic constructions of the East as seen by and filtered through the West, particularly in relation to the female figure — articulated through many different kinds of found material and variable film stock.… Read more »

FIG LEAVES (previously unpublished)

The year before I started my Paris Journal for Film Comment, in late 1970 and/or early 1971, I wrote a couple of prototypes for it for a short-lived magazine, On Film, that didn’t survive long enough to print either one of them. In fact, On Film never made it past its lavishly glossy first issue, which was devoted mainly to Otto Preminger. Not all of either of these columns has survived either, but here is the first entry in the second of these columns, which did. — J.R.

 

November 6: Howard Hawks’s FIG LEAVES at the Cinémathèque.

Twenty days ago, I concluded my previous column with remarks about Ozu’s TOKYO STORY. Since then, I’ve seen or reseen a dozen films; Mizoguchi’s SISTERS OF THE GION and THE CRUCIFIED WOMAN, Franju’s THOMAS L’IMPOSTEUR, Kramer’s ICE, Malraux’s L’ESPOIR, Tati’s PLAYTIME, Demy’s THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT, Minnelli’s CABIN IN THE SKY, Mankiewicz’s THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN, Godard’s MASCULIN-FEMININE, Ray’s BIGGER THAN LIFE, and now Hawks’s second film, a comedy made in 1926.… Read more »

Carpenter’s Gothic [IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS]

From the February 3, 1995 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

In the Mouth of Madness

Rating *** A must see

Directed by John Carpenter

Written by Michael De Luca

With Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jurgen Prochnow, David Warner, John Glover, Bernie Casey, Peter Jason, and Charlton Heston.

In the Mouth of Madness isn’t John Carpenter’s best horror movie to date, but it may well be his scariest. What makes it nightmarish isn’t so much its premise — a man set loose inside the mind and writings of a crazed hack novelist — as the many elliptical details that the premise occasions: things that go bump in the head, fleeting suggestions of horrors that brush the edge of our attention and perceptions, like the peripheral events in bad dreams.

In this respect, Carpenter seems to have entered David Lynch territory — an unlikely development, but then Carpenter’s career has been full of unlikely developments. In early features like Dark Star (playing this Tuesday at the University of Chicago) and Assault on Precinct 13, he was a playful auteurist making the rounds of popular genres, nodding to masters like Hawks and Hitchcock along the way. After establishing himself as a suspense and horror specialist in Halloween, his first hit, he took an abrupt right turn into gritty (and implicitly libertarian) action kicks in Escape From New York, then virtually drowned in special effects in his remake of The Thing.… Read more »

Alexander Dovzhenko, Hillbilly Avant-Gardist

Written for MUBI Notebook in April 2020. — J.R.

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It’s disconcerting that the collected writings in English of one of the world’s greatest filmmakers currently sells for $852 on Amazon — or a whopping $980, if you opt for the paperback — while the only American book about him downgrades his work’s artistic value in its very title (Vance Kepley’s 1985 In the Service of the State: The Cinema of Alexander Dovzhenko). Look him up on Wikipedia, and you find that his name is shared by a poker player and a psychiatrist — hardly fit company for the epic, poetic Alexander Dovzhenko (1894-1956), a pagan mystic whose masterful films look as wildly experimental, as dreamlike, as hysterically funny, as fiercely tragic, and as beautiful today as they did a century ago.

A Cold War casualty, often defined in the West as a Russian Communist and in Russia as a turncoat, this Ukrainian nationalist lived under KGB surveillance for most of his life — which may help to explain why his devoted second wife Julia Solntseva, who filmed many of his unrealized scripts after his death, had joined the KGB herself, possibly in order to protect her husband. And as one of his better Western explicators, Ray Uzwyshyn, has pointed out, “With regard to the non-Russian republics (i.e.… Read more »

John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars

From the Chicago Reader (August 20, 2001). — J.R.

John Carpenter at his most enjoyable generally means ‘Scope, working-class sass, kick-ass antiestablishment heroes, typecast villains who individually suggest quiet serial killers and collectively resemble hordes of whooping savages, a minimalist music score by Carpenter himself, and an overall affection for the way action movies looked and sounded 50 years ago. This movie — an action romp in which cops and prisoners go up against vengeful martian spirits on a colonized Mars in the year 2176 — adds a few more likable ingredients: a flashback structure with several overlapping points of view, great use of Ice Cube and Pam Grier, lap dissolves, and a notion of shifting alliances that keeps things hopping. (Natasha Henstridge as the head cop is pretty lively too.) As in many other Carpenter movies both good and bad, a lot of the cramped settings can be traced back to the original version of The Thing. With Jason Statham, Clea DuVall, and Joanna Cassidy; Larry Sulkis collaborated with Carpenter on the script. 98 min. (JR)

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Bridge Over Troubled Water [THE GRADUATE]

This review originally appeared in the March 28, 1997 issue of the Chicago Reader.-— J.R.

The Graduate **

Directed by Mike NicholsWritten by Buck Henry and Calder WillinghamWith Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman, Katherine Ross,William Daniels, MurrayHamilton, Elizabeth Wilson,and Brian Avery.

If I feel myself as the producer of my life, then I am unhappy. So I would rather be a spectator of my life. I would rather change my life this way since I cannot change it in society. So at night I see films that are different from my experiences during the day. Thus there is a strict separation between experience and the cinema. That is the obstacle for our films. For we are people of the 60s, and we do not believe in the opposition between experience and fiction. –- Alexander Kluge, 1988

The Graduate opened in December 1967, the same month the first successful human heart transplant was performed. It was a few weeks after the premiere of Bonnie and Clyde and about three months before the launching of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Among the albums that came out the same year were the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request, and the Mothers of Invention’s Absolutely Free.… Read more »

Paris Journal (March-April 1973): Lewis & Tashlin

From Film Comment. In a few slight particulars, I’ve taken the liberty of editing my 30-year-old self 47 years later. I’ve also omitted the remarks about several recent French film books (apart from Benayoun’s) that concluded this column. — J.R.

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The admiration of French cinéastes for Jerry Lewis continues to be in evidence everywhere. In an interview in the current Time Out [in London], Jean-Pierre Gorin pays his own respect to Lewis’s greatness – over the protests of his interviewers – for the “experimental” and “scientific” ways that he deals with sound and image, cutting and plot construction, adding that Godard has seen WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT? (which “is almost mathematical if you look into it deeply”) five times. And in DOCTEUR POPAUL, Chabrol’s latest film, Mia Farrow is furnished with eyeglasses and buck teeth to make her resemble Julius Kelp in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, while Jean-Paul Belmondo is run through a series of sight-gags that are clearly Lewis-inspired.

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To my mind, Chabrol’s pastiches are vastly inferior to Lewis’s originals, and DOCTEUR POPAUL is less worthy of American release than Chabrol’s earlier OPHÉLIA, LA RUPTURE, or JUSTE AVANT LA NUIT (the last-named, a perverse and elegant companion-piece of LA FEMME INFIDÈLE, is probably the best of the lot).… Read more »

Mindless Kicks [RUMBLE IN THE BRONX & BROKEN ARROW]

From the Chicago Reader (February 23, 1996). — J.R.

Rumble in the Bronx

Directed by Stanley Tong

Written by Edward Tang and Fibe Ma

With Jackie Chan, Anita Mui, Francoise Yip, and Bill Tung.

Broken Arrow

Directed by John Woo

Written by Graham Yost

With John Travolta, Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis, Delroy Lindo, Bob Gunton, and Frank Whaley.

Many people who’ve seen Saturday Night Fever probably remember the poster of a bare-chested Sylvester Stallone as Rocky in the bedroom of Tony (John Travolta), the king of Brooklyn disco. But how many recall the poster of a bare-chested Bruce Lee as well? In the nearly two decades since Saturday Night Fever was released, the dream of wedding Hong Kong action pyrotechnics with Hollywood production values to conquer the American mainstream has surfaced periodically, but until recently the results have seemed halfhearted at best.

I haven’t seen any of the earlier Jackie Chan vehicles with American settings — films like The Big Brawl (1980) and The Cannonball Run (1981) — but it’s clear that none of these succeeded in turning Chan into an American household word. At most he’s become an alternative action hero for some passionate aficionados — especially in Chicago, where Barbara Scharres’s efforts at the Film Center to honor his work, climaxing in an in-person appearance a few years back, have helped to foster a growing cult.… Read more »